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Seven-Step Drop: Heisman Race, Not College Football Playoff Push was Biggest Takeaway of Week 2

Baker Mayfield

Baker Mayfield

Louisville QB Lamar Jackson

If Week 1 was about quality of games, then Week 2 was all about the quantity with top-25 matchups all across the board and deep into the night. Whether you were at a game or trying to follow along at home by frantically flipping between channels, Saturday was quite the reminder that this sport can offer moment after moment in rapid-fire succession.

Of all the wins though, the biggest undoubtedly took place in the only top-five matchup of the bunch between Ohio State and Oklahoma. After a competitive first half, Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield emerged with the college football version of being on fire in the old NBA Jam video game. Darting passes all over the Buckeyes’ inexperienced secondary, moving around the pocket to avoid the pass rush and scampering for first downs when needed, it was a virtuoso performance from one of the best players of the past few seasons and finally a moment on the big stage that allowed more than just Big 12 fans to appreciate what he can do in the ball with his hands.

Coming in, the showdown was often framed in the context of the College Football Playoff but Mayfield’s performance — and the lackluster one of his opposite number J.T. Barrett — should help us to rethink that. There will certainly be time to discuss the resumes of Oklahoma, Ohio State and others like them over the next several months but just two weeks into the year it’s the race for the Heisman that might be way more intriguing than which teams wind up in the final four.

Mayfield’s statement win — made in emphatic fashion by slamming the OU flag into the midfield logo of the Horseshoe — and terrific efficiency while doing so should vault him to the top of the list in the minds of many voters but he is being trailed by a cast of players that might just be the deepest we’ve seen in years for the sport’s ultimate individual prize. To start with, there’s still not a ton of separation from the Sooners star and the guy he finished behind a year ago in Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. While two weeks ago there was plenty of noise about how there was not enough talk about the defending Heisman winner, that has evaporated into thin air as the dual-threat QB looks even better than he did a season ago. Jackson will have a chance to add to his resume in a big way when the Cardinals host defending champs Clemson in prime time but it’s hard to think of anybody in the game right now who has to do more to will his team to victory than No. 8 does.

Yet the pair is merely the tip of the iceberg. In Mayfield’s own state he’ll have to contend with another budding star in Mason Rudolph, who has put up the video game-esque numbers everybody expects but has still gone from dark horse candidate to somebody with a real shot to make it to New York City. Then there’s preseason darling Sam Darnold, who quickly reversed any negative talk about candidacy by dismantling Stanford in a way that USC hasn’t done in over a decade. Across town, Josh Rosen followed up his comeback for the ages by tossing five touchdowns without breaking a sweat. Alabama’s Jalen Hurts continues to rack up yards on the ground and through the air to be taken seriously in leading the near unanimous No. 1 team in the country. Add in Penn State’s Saquon Barkley running over Pitt defenders like a Tonka truck and LSU running back Derrius Guice continuing to grind out yards ahead of a challenging SEC slate and this just might be the most crowded field through the non-conference slate in ages. Heck, it’s even easy to forget about defensive players like Derwin James and Ed Oliver but you can bet they’ll be in the mix too given how good they’ve played early on.

There’s just something else that makes Oklahoma’s victory over Ohio State much more about the individuals than the bigger picture though – recent history, especially in Columbus itself. How quickly we forget the lessons of the playoff era, new as it still is, that one loss does not knock any team out and a perfect season is few and far between nowadays. One only has to think back to the last shocking home loss of the Meyer era, a dud where Virginia Tech wound up making the OSU offense look slow and unprepared. The Hokies emerged victorious in that non-conference game under the lights but don’t forget who wound up holding up the trophy in the end the following January.

OSU can still rally to make the playoff and wind up 11-1. Oklahoma can still lose in Bedlam, or to TCU, or in the Red River Showdown once again. No team is safe from having an off night on the wrong Saturday. So whether you wear scarlet, crimson or some other color on game day, be sure to leave Week 2 much more excited over the prospect of Mayfield having to bring his A-Game each week to hold off a growing number of outstanding contenders on the awards front.

The Heisman race is certainly well underway in college football even if the playoff chase is just getting warmed up.

Six other takeaways from a scrumptious Saturday of college football:

2. Twice in three games Urban Meyer has been out-coached. What’s next in Columbus?

The angst among the Buckeyes’ fan base felt palpable early in the fourth quarter long before Baker Mayfield planted that flag at midfield or a dozen columns were filled questioning what the team is doing, if anything, on offense. While there will be much hand-wringing over how well suited J.T. Barrett is running the offense (despite the 27-5 record) or which linemen blew assignments or why the ball wasn’t given to running back J.K. Dobbins more, the bigger question in Columbus is what the response will be from Urban Meyer after he’s been out-coached twice in his past three games. That the first came against Dabo Swinney in a year he won the national title is at least somewhat understandable but to have the youngest head coach in college football lead the charge on your home field is something that will have to cause Meyer to wonder just where to go from here.

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The good news for Ohio State fans is that Meyer has responded to such woes before. There was that shocking 2015 loss to Michigan State in which the team looked straight out of the 1930s trying to move the football. Coordinators were physically moved the next week and the emphasis on the run game was redoubled. A 12-1 campaign was eventually capped off with a runaway bowl victory, a No. 4 finish and then the hire of the most experienced defensive coordinator on the market to replace a departed assistant. Optimism rebounded, until it didn’t.

More cracks that showed in last year’s loss to Penn State became apparent later in that lackluster shutout to Clemson last season. More coaches were shuffled along and then in came experienced play-caller Kevin Wilson and young prodigy Ryan Day to tutor the quarterbacks on the downfield accuracy that has been lacking for two years. Saturday showed that not everybody is on the same page and there was talk afterward of the offense being out of rhythm. There is not a talent issue at OSU, and it could simply be a case of a bad night, but one has to think that Meyer is already set to tweak things and be more hands-on than he wanted to be at the beginning of the year.

Three seasons ago, a loss sparked a title run. Two years ago, a run of dominance followed an angry and disappointing conference stumble. Recent offensive struggles led to big changes in the booth. What will Meyer do now with a promising season still potentially ahead for one of the few teams that have recruited at Alabama and Clemson’s level? That just might be the most intriguing thing to watch about Ohio State after the worst home loss in years and more questions than ever about where the team goes from here.

3. Notre Dame is much improved but Brian Kelly is not

Kirby Smart was a big winner over the weekend when he emerged victorious in South Bend, edging out Notre Dame in front of a huge throng of red and black faithful that made the trip north. The second half of the game was great drama but the thing that really stood out to me was not the Bulldogs — who everybody thought would be a top-15 team — but the Irish.

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The defense, behind new coordinator Mike Elko, went toe-to-toe against an SEC team with two early-round NFL tailbacks and looked much improved. More to the point, the Irish played fast on just about every snap and didn’t continually commit the same mistakes they did time after time last year. The second half was a little rocky on offense but you can see the promise in quarterback Brandon Wimbush and the three-headed monster he leads alongside Josh Adams and Equanimeous St. Brown. In short, this team looks much improved from last year’s squad and should be 5-1 and ranked in the top 20 by the time USC comes to town.

Yet there was one thing that hasn’t changed – Brian Kelly. Not only did the team lose their ninth one-possession game in their last 10 tries, but the head coach once again showed that for all the offseason talk of change and a new way of doing things, he still has trouble handling losing a close game like someone of his experience should. He was short with the media at times, bullied a female reporter while asking a question, deflected attention off his own role in the outcome and looked as dour and red-faced as you’ve come to expect. As much as Irish fans bring up the win-loss record when talking about the coach’s job security and whether a change needs to be made, it’s moments like this that are particularly rankling to those that bleed blue and gold.

“I think if I’m standing here and we found a way to score one more touchdown, and put 26 points on the board, maybe the narrative is just a little bit different,” Kelly said postgame. “We didn’t and we lost the football game. We’re close to being the type of football team that can play with anybody but we were short on a couple of things.”

So as much as the past few months have been about what’s new, renovated and revamped with the Irish, it’s good to know somethings apparently can still be the same at the one place where the past is held onto so dearly.

4. Group of 5 up, Power 5 down

Group of 5 head coaches with the arrow pointed up: EMU’s Chris Creighton (beat Rutgers), UTSA’s Frank Wilson (beat Baylor), Western Michigan’s Tim Lester (pushed USC/Michigan State), SMU’s Chad Morris (112 points in two games), SDSU’s Rocky Long (see below)

Power 5 head coaches with the arrow pointed down: Barry Odom (Missouri), Mark Stoops (Kentucky), Steve Addazio (Boston College), Mike Riley (Nebraska), Bret Bielema (Arkansas), David Beaty (Kansas)

5. Boise State is no longer a national power — or a Mountain West one

In the fourth quarter of Boise State’s game against Washington State, ESPN put up a rather fateful graphic saying the Broncos had won 101 consecutive games after taking a lead of at least 21 points. It was an illustrative reminder that showed what kind of powerhouse the team once was with a consistent high-scoring offense that had wrinkles upon wrinkles and a defense that annually sent players to the NFL.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Boise State

Boise State blew that 21-point lead in a wild, wacky and bizarre triple-overtime game that appropriately had Mike Leach on one sideline. While the win was a nice way to send the Cougars into Pac-12, the outcome really said more about the team they beat from across the state line. No longer is BSU that team nobody wants to schedule or somebody that evokes fear in the minds of opponents like the Broncos once did. No longer is the team best known for execution and getting more done with less. No longer is this a squad you regularly consider to be top 25-caliber either.

Boise is still an upper-tier Group of 5 program and you can’t discount them capturing that bid to a New Year’s Six bowl now or in the future. There’s still talent on the roster and the facilities needed to compete this day and age. But at some point those recruiting classes will have more misses than hits and the TV money that keeps dwindling will put them further behind the eight ball of their Power 5 brethren. The coaching drain that started when Chris Petersen left for Washington (and has continued nearly every year since) is starting to become more and more apparent. No longer is this a team capable of competing on a regular basis with the big boys like was the case not long ago.

That’s where the Broncos are now and it will take everything Bryan Harsin has left in order to turn the direction of the program around and live up to the sky high expectations fans in Boise have for their team every season. What’s worse is that the team really can’t even be considered a Mountain West power anymore either after just one title in four long years. Boise State has lost five times in conference play the past two years alone — after losing a total of six times in the seven seasons prior. The new top dog in the league is San Diego State, now 24-6 overall the past three years after beating their own Pac-12 opponent on Saturday.

As I watched Aztecs tailback Rashaad Penny running wild on Arizona State at the same time Boise State started to falter up on the Palouse, it was striking how different things are out West and where things may go from here in Boise and beyond.

6. Does BYU have anything to play for after the Holy War?

Fans East of the Mississippi have no idea that the Mountain time zone is home to two of the nastier college football rivalries in the country between fan bases that coexist in close proximity but resent each other every passing moment. The nicer of the two is between Arizona’s Pac-12 schools and the more bitter one is the Holy War between BYU and Utah.

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The Utes won again on Saturday, their seventh straight in the series that not so coincidentally dates to the season prior to them joining the Pac-12 and the Cougars embarking on football independence. Every rivalry loss is especially painful in Provo but the way the series has gone since leaving the Mountain West, with so many losses by minuscule amounts, has only served to twist the knife further for those in blue.

While gloating about being a Power 5 team is something that Utah fans regularly hold over their rivals any chance they get, the latest result left me wondering what exactly the season holds for BYU now after back-to-back brutal efforts on offense and a 1-2 start. The Cougars do have opportunities left for big wins over “name” teams like Wisconsin, Boise State and Mississippi State but what’s really that carrot on the stick for this program after losing to Utah so early on the calendar once again?

A marquee victory would certainly be nice but given that there’s no conference title, playoff spot or Group of 5 bid left to play for, there might not be much to focus on after this team turns in a repeat of last season: finishing with a good record by beating up on overmatched teams in late October and November. Football independence has been more difficult than BYU would like to admit but the point really gets hammered home after a loss like Saturday’s and the feeling that every game is just not quite as enjoyable as it could be with something larger at stake.

A win over Utah means a lot to those at BYU and would be the highlight for the team no matter what the circumstance or the season. It will come eventually and be cause for joyous celebration on a team that doesn’t get to do so much. After a seventh straight defeat though, Kalani Sitake’s squad will have to regroup and figure out what is next after a promising 2017 now looks very much like a repeat of the recent past.

7. Baylor’s rebuild will be longer and more painful than anybody predicted

Matt Rhule had a choice to make this past offseason. The then-Temple coach was a hot commodity on the coaching market after taking the Owls from two wins in his first year to 20 over his final two. Power 5 jobs were opening and the dominoes were falling in the right way for him to take a big next step. Things were moving fast but it appeared Rhule’s choice would come down to taking the Oregon job and rebuild the Ducks, or go to Waco with a longer contract (and more job security) and more upside to bring Baylor back from a debilitating scandal.

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Common sense would have said go to UO, with the school’s flashy facilities, unlimited Nike budget and a winnable league. Rhule didn’t opt for that route however, picking the Bears over the Ducks. On Saturday we saw the first glimpse of why that decision — even if it pays off in the long term — will be a painful one to endure in central Texas for the near term. It probably doesn’t help either that Oregon beat Nebraska for the first big victory under the guy the Ducks eventually picked to be head coach.

That Baylor is 0-2 is surprising to even the most ardent school supporter but the fact that those two losses come to an FCS team and a Conference USA one (who didn’t play in Week 1) is downright concerning. Taking a look at the roster, you knew this would be a difficult season but... this? First the defense was awful in the opener and on Saturday it was the offense’s turn to look inept. Rhule’s staff is doing what they can but the exasperated looks on their faces after the game said it all that things are even more difficult than anybody imagined.

The Bears have already played 14 true freshmen from a recruiting class that was ranked 40th by 247Sports and need other reinforcements from a lost class the year prior. That youth movement full of 18- and 19-year-olds may not be ready to handle major college football games right now but the strategy could pay off long term if Rhule’s track record at Temple is any indication. We’ll see if the team builds for the future even more next week by sitting transfer QB Anu Solomon to get more reps for sophomore Zach Smith but you have to wonder where exactly the wins might come from this year when looking ahead.

Baylor travels to Duke this week in what will be its toughest non-conference game in years. Then Big 12 play begins with Oklahoma, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas. It is going to be a long time until winnable games come around in November and there’s not enough shiplap left in Waco to cover up that fact for a team that looks an awful lot like it did a decade ago.

Stat of the Week

Oklahoma is the only team to defeat two AP No. 2 teams on the road this century (Ohio State 2017, Kansas State 2000). AP No. 2 teams have surprisingly only lost 12 times since 2000.

Tweet of the Week

Superlatives of the Week

Best player: DT Ed Oliver (Houston)

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Heisman five: 1. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), 2. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 3. Saquon Barkley, 4. Josh Rosen (UCLA), 5. Sam Darnold (USC)

Projected final four: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Oklahoma, 4. USC

Team of the week: Eastern Michigan

Honorary Les Miles Goat of the week: Boise State’s Bryan Harsin

Quote of the week: "I know last year beating us for them was like the Super Bowl. This was just like beating Akron for us." — Penn State head coach James Franklin on beating rival Pitt.

Quote of the week (Part II): Eastern Michigan head coach Chris Creighton on win over Rutgers: “I know our media relations’ director Greg Steiner said that in our 126-year history that we’ve never beaten a Power 5 school. We played 58 times and we’re 0-58. I thought about it a little bit and I had to tell our team. We don’t want to make it about that, but at the same time, I had not known that. So Tuesday, at our meeting, we said could be first ever in the history, which is a century and a quarter long, and be the first and that will never be taken away from us. It’ll be history forever. Or we’ll be the 59th. We’ll play another one this year. We’ll play another next year and at some point it will happen. It’s awesome to answer your question. It’s absolutely awesome. This is a group of guys, and coaches, that people didn’t believe in that stuck together and endured some tough times and tried to stay on course and believe in ourselves and believe in each other and to do things right. To fly out here in the second week of the season and have a win like this, it’s a pretty big deal.”

Play of the Week

The No. 3 team in Athlon Sports' FCS Power Poll, South Dakota State, held on to beat Montana State thanks to this trick play from Chase Vinatieri. You might recognize the last name and that is indeed Adam Vinatieri’s nephew.

Super 16

I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into Week 3.

1. Alabama

2. Clemson

3. Oklahoma

4. USC

5. Penn State

6. Oklahoma State

7. Ohio State

8. Georgia

9. Washington

10. Michigan

11. Wisconsin

12. Florida State

13. Auburn

14. LSU

15. Stanford

16. TCU

Best of the rest: Kansas State, Louisville, Miami, Washington State, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Tennessee, San Diego State, UCLA

Pre-snap Reads

Clemson at Louisville

The marquee game on a week full of a ton of “meh” games, this could very well turn into a repeat of last year’s thriller in Death Valley that put Lamar Jackson on track to win the Heisman and the Tigers toward a national title. The Clemson defensive line remains one of the best in football and that will be the difference in this one as the Tigers should wind up with a comfortable victory in the end. While the Cardinals aren’t playing like a top-15 team just yet, something says Bobby Petrino has something saved up to keep things close.

College football rankings: Louisville
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Clemson

Tennessee at Florida

Assuming this game remains on in Gainesville, this will be a big litmus test for both sides and whether either can challenge Georgia at all in the SEC East. It’s hard to really trust either side given how shaky they looked in their openers but I’ll lean Volunteers in this one to put together their first two-game winning streak since 2004.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Florida
Tennessee Football Schedule

LSU at Mississippi State

Not a ton of intriguing games on the slate but this one is shaping up to be an eyebrow-raiser in the SEC West. LSU has looked good, especially defensively, but the Tigers will be tested by what MSU QB Nick Fitzgerald can do with his legs. The Bulldogs probably don’t have the horses to pull off the upset but since it’s in Starkvegas, things will be close before LSU emerges with a win.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Mississippi State
LSU Football Schedule

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.